Juror #11’s View on an Assault with a Firearm Trial – Part 2

Dec 01, 2010

Image courtesy of tidewatermuse.

Yesterday I posted part 1 of this story about serving on a criminal jury in San Francisco. I highly recommend giving it a read before this one.

The Defendant's Story Mr. Peters' story is, not surprisingly, quite different from Mr. Sargent's after Mr. Sargent left to go upstairs. In his version, after Mr. Sargent returns to his apartment a microwave door is slammed, so he wheels into the kitchen and yells “don't break my microwave – you're going to have to pay for it if you do!”. At this point he notices Mr. Sargent holding the gun in his hand, and is waving it around while yelling at him “were you in cahoots with them? Were you in on it?”. Mr. Peters, not believing that Mr. Sargent would actually shoot him, but being nervous due to a drunk and high Mr. Sargent wielding a weapon, decides that he'll try to disarm him, and lunges for the gun. A struggle ensues, with Mr. Peters grabbing the barrel with two hands while Mr. Sargent moves behind him and engages him in a headlock. At some point he is able to wrestle the gun away, and Mr. Sargent, realizing he no longer has the upper hand, bolts for the door, grabs his bag, and heads upstairs. Peters, believing that Mr. Sargent might return to try to re-engage him in a confrontation, locks the door and heads to the bedroom where he hides the gun under the dresser. Noting that he hasn't heard the downstairs door slam – which would indicate Mr. Sargent has left the building – believes him to be upstairs at Boo's house. Trying to figure out what to do – he is, after all, a convicted felon illegally possessing a firearm – he figures there are two ways out of the situation: he can give the weapon back to Mr. Sargent if he calms down and returns to retrieve it, or he can call the police and have them dispose of it. The first option he doesn't control, and the second he is a bit apprehensive of as he's got the smell of weed wafting through the apartment and is aware how the story would sound to the police, so he grabs some Yoohoo from the kitchen and starts to sober up.

And then the police show up.

There were a number of peculiar things to Mr. Peters' story, including why he didn't call the police immediately to report the weapon there, why he left the gun haphazardly under the dresser, why he didn't hear a gunshot (but acknowledges one may have gone off), and why he thinks he may have blacked out during the struggle (but doesn't know).

Deliberations Okay, so it's probably safe to say at this point you can deduce from the tone in my writing that I didn't believe the “victim” very much, but to be fair, I didn't believe the defendant very much either. But the instructions from the judge were very clear: the prosecution must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, where a person would not have a reasonable doubt that the defendant may not have committed he crime. I walked into the jury room thinking that the defendant was not guilty of the shooting, but I was less sure of myself on the possession charge.

I was, however, happy to finally be able to talk about the case – during the evidence portion of the trial jurors are forbidden to discuss the case, even with fellow jurors. It's a bit of a frustrating experience, as the evidence presented is just that, presented, so there is no room for being able to ask questions or figure out what's going on beyond your own thoughts. The deliberations represented the first time we could have to actually interact with the information we had been given in the past week.

The first thing we did when entering the jury room was decide who the jury foreperson would be, and it was pretty simple because one young woman offered to do it, and no one else stepped up to contest her. The foreperson simply organizes the group and sends messages to the court, so it's not surprising to me that no one else wanted the role. After brief introductions someone suggested we take a vote on the two charges, so we went around the 12 person table and each person got a chance to say what they were thinking with regards to the two charges.

As we went around the table a fair consensus began to emerge on the assault charge, 10 of the panel (including myself) believed the people had not proved their case – Mr. Peters may have been guilty, but it seemed more likely that something else happened that evening – and 2 of the panel believing he was guilty. What struck me as strange about the 2 that would have voted to convict was that they didn't actually believe the evidence submitted by the “victim”, they just though that Mr. Peters probably did it. After a bit of discussion about the facts it became pretty clear that they didn't feel strongly about the charge, and we quickly came to the consensus that we would vote to acquit on the assault charge.

With regards to the possession charge – felony possession of a firearm - a lot less consensus was on the table. The charge itself was not entirely straightforward, as obviously the defendant possessed the gun – it was at his house. The problem was that the law actually allows a felon to possess a firearm if all of the following are true:

  • The firearm is possessed for a “momentary and transitory” period

  • The possession is for the intent of disposition

  • The felon does not attempt to conceal the weapon from law enforcement

Furthermore, the burden of proof is actually on the defense to prove that all three of the items above are true, as everyone acknowledges Peters possessed the gun. In addition, the burden is not beyond a reasonable doubt, but more likely than not that all three things were true for us to find him not guilty.

My thought was then that the fundamental question was whether it was more likely than not Mr. Peters' gun, or if not his gun whether he intended to dispose of the weapon or keep it. In my mind the key items that helped me make the decision were:

  • The fact the gun was haphazardly tossed in the bottom drawer while in a incapacitated position (ie with the slide back where it could not be fired) indicated the gun was likely not his.

  • The fact that while neither side's story was really credible, it seemed more likely to me that Mr. Peters' version of the events were accurate than Mr. Sargent's.

  • The fact that the defendant immediately gave the weapon up when asked by the police, and referred to the gun as “the gun” (rather than “a gun”).

At the end of the day if I'm not sure of guilt or innocence I believe it would be the right thing to send someone to prison – I don't know how I'd live with myself if I sent someone to jail who I believe might be innocent.

As a jury we went around the table a number of times taking votes, with each juror getting a chance to discuss the evidence that they were considering when making their decision, and then ultimately logging a vote (or a “not sure”). The various votes changed the mix in the middle – it was initially split maybe 4 not-guilty to 3 or 4 guilty with a number of un-sures – and our final vote was 9-3.

Finally we sent a message to the bailiff who came to get us, and we returned to the courtroom where the verdict was read. As the verdict of “not-guilty” was read I saw Mr. Raja, Mr. Peters' defense attorney, shake Mr. Peters hand and congratulate him. The prosecutor put on a game face but she looked like she was having a bad day.

Takeaways From Jury Duty It's never a good time to take a number of days away from your normal life and go sit in a room with strangers for no (well, $15 a day) monetary gain, but I believe it's an incredibly important responsibility we have as citizens. I'm surprised by the number of intelligent, responsible, respectable people I talk to who believe that it's right to lie your way off a jury and that “only suckers or people too dumb to get off” serve on juries.

It's also incredibly fascinating. Part of me has always wanted to be a lawyer – I find constitutional law especially interesting – and serving on this jury gave me a good look at how our legal system works. I was never bored throughout the trial, although perhaps the facts of this particular case, with it's myriad interesting characters, are the cause for that.

Finally, I think it's a great way to really understand people from different walks of life. There are so few opportunities in today's world to really here how people think about fundamental issues like freedom and the law, as politics are really a modern day taboo in the workforce and common conversation. If you are like me, the only people you really have these conversations with are family and close friends, who often can think similarly to you as they are often in similar walks of life. The jury room gives you the opportunity to meet and interact with others from all walks of life, rich and poor, educated and not, young and old.

I highly recommend it. And you really have no choice.